This 3-part story offers a raw-faced portrait of a nation in the throes of a military war, religious sectarian battles and social upheaval. Nearly 10% of the population have been dislocated and tens of thousands have be killed since the ‘American War’ started in 2003 (and countless more under the Saddam regime.)
Needless to say Iraq’s LGBT population is suffering as well–and more, since vigilante death squads are reportedly ferreting out gay citizens for execution.
(1) An American Gay Writer in Iraq
By Richard Ammon, GlobalGayz.com
Noted New York-based gay writer Michael Luongo recently (August 2007) visited Iraq with the intention of interviewing Iraqi gay citizens. For both Michael and his interviewees the experience was fraught with anxiety and apprehension. Read through the GlobalGayz.com News & Reports pages (Iraq News) to see the risk and fear that Iraqi gays face in light of the extremist militant groups now targeting them in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere. Clearly for them the US invasion has made life go from bad to worse.
Here are Michael’s words about his trip. These are followed by some questions and answers from GlobalGayz put to Luongo.
“I’d never been there before, so when I flew to Kurdistan in the north where a friend of mine with American Voices was giving a concert, I decided to go,” says my friend and colleague, NYC-based travel writer Michael Luongo. “And with gay men being attacked across Iraq [by Shiite militias], I wanted to go there to interview people directly.”
” Logistically it’s impossible to meet anyone in Baghdad. I was primarily in the green zone – the international zone – where I stayed in a military press compound. I did interviews at a particular hotel whose name I cannot reveal because it would put it at risk, especially if [terrorists] found out I was doing gay interviews there.”
Luongo, who is dark-haired from his Italian heritage and could superficially pass as Middle Eastern, wrote, “People will not meet you after work because they cannot go home in the dark – they are worried someone may kill them if they leave the green zone after 4 p.m. And you cannot speak English in the red zone – the unofficial term for everything not in the green zone – because that marks you as wealthy or working for the Americans and you can be killed or kidnapped.”
If there is s hint of someone being slightly effeminate, he is at high risk. ” If you clearly look gay or act gay you risk being killed. What can be code for gay – long hair or stylish Western clothes – can mark you for death.”
Luongo has traveled the world interviewing LGBT natives in their countries, including Afghanistan (see Gay Afghanistan on GlobalGayz). Most recently he has published (June 2007) a new book ‘Gay Travels in the Muslim World’ (including a chapter written by GlobalGayz owner Richard Ammon).
The New York Post’s Page Six review said: “The ayatollahs may not slap him with a fatwah as they did Salman Rushdie, but fundamentalist clerics are bound to be enraged at Michael Luongo over Gay Travels in the Muslim World, his book celebrating homosexuality in the Middle East… Luongo compiled chapters by 17 writers covering Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Bangladesh, Turkey and Saudi Arabia [and] had the foreword written by Afdhere Jama, the founder of Huriyah, ‘the world’s first magazine for queer Muslims,’ who, he claims, number 150 million.”
Before and during his trip, Luongo was advised by gay Iraqi human rights activist Ali Hili, who has described, along with journalist Doug Ireland, the murderous anti-gay campaign of the fanatical Mahdi Army headed by the fundamentalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who wants a strict Sharia-Islamist theocracy in Iraq.
” I used some of Ali’s contacts to set up interviews,” says Luongo, “but many gay people there have fled to the north of the country (Kurdistan). That’s [also] common among Iraqis who have money. The building boom in Kurdistan is being fueled by people fleeing the south.”
But even in the quieter north, people bring their traumas and memories with them.
” One guy I met lived through a car bombing that killed 50 people on their way to work one morning and the horrified expression on everybody’s face was, ‘What did we do to deserve this?'”
Luongo wrote, “I’m against this war but my view is we’re there now and what do we do? We have to be adults about the situation we’re in now. I think the country should be split up, but Turkey would never accept a separate Kurdistan. My impression speaking with Iraqis is if [American and British troops] leave it will get even worse, like when the Russians left Afghanistan. That’s when there was real bloodshed.”
(2) GlobalGayz interview with Michael Luongo
1 What was the purpose of your trip?
I had several purposes for my trip, and I had wanted to go to Iraq for a while. For this trip, a confluence of things occurred to make it possible. A friend of mine, John Ferguson, who runs American Voices, a charity which brings American music to war zones and developing countries, was having a concert in Erbil, in the Kurdish north of Iraq. That made it easy to go. I also wanted to go to Baghdad for a few things. I am curious for one ting, I also wanted top do a favor for a family on my street whose son died in Iraq, Riayan Tejeda, and have some kind of candle lighting ceremony for them. And very important, to interview gay men in Baghdad. There are many reports about what’s going on, but i always like to see things for myself.
2 How did you get there?
Commercial airlines fly to Iraq. To get to Erbil, you fly from Vienna on Austrian Airlines. I took a military flight to Baghdad however.
3 Where did you go + how did you get around?
Erbil, Suleymania in Kurdistan and Baghdad too. Getting around is `easy in Kurdistan..you can walk around the cities, there is no security problem, and we also hired a driver and translator. Baghdad is another story… I used military convoys to get into Baghdad from the airport, and the army drove us around a lot in the Green Zone. Also, I did got into the Red Zone, my own private security transport one day and then bumming rides off of other journalist. Movement is very very difficult in Baghdad but some of the interviews were done in the Red Zone.
4 Who did you talk to?
I interviewed a variety of people in different ways. I did meet gay men through friendship networks, through gay web sites, and circumstantially meeting them. In Kurdistan, I was traveling with other gay Americans, and one had been there before and so knew a few. I also interviewed some contacts given to me by Ali Hili of Iraqi LGBT. I had also gone on gaydar.com and other sites to meet people and then when you meet someone, they bring friends. So I was able to meet quite a few people informally. In Baghdad, some interviews were arranged, but I also had a gay translator and well, one meets people and thinks they are gay, and then after when they feel more comfortable, they contact you and say yes I am.
5 Were you really embedded with troops?
Yes, but not in the sense of danger and seeing war battles. I stayed in CPIC, a military press compound in the Green Zone. Technically it is an embed in the sense you’re with the military, but not as you imagine an embed.
6 What level of risk were you at? Did you experience risk?
I think Iraqis were far more at risk meeting me than I was at risk at all I was however in the middle of a rocket attack on a checkpoint when I crossed into the Red Zone. It was interesting more than dangerous, rockets have bad aim so the target is the safest spot. In theory, at any time a rocket can hit anywhere in the Green Zone. One danger though in 130 degree heat with body armor is not an attack, but overheating. I did feel I had reached some physical limits at times.
7 While you were in Iraq you managed to interview several gay men ( in person and by phone). It must have been an anxious interaction for both of you given the threatening circumstances these men faced Did they act nervous, looking around, checking?
The most nervous interview was at a hotel in the Green Zone. While in some ways there was some comfort, there was also this sort of spy movie feeling to it, yes checking around, yes knowing people were watching us. One couple, a man and a woman, kept moving to sit next to us whenever we moved. And later they asked us a question, in English, so we would know they understood us. Overall I worried more for the men I interviewed than for myself.
8 Did they appear somewhat effeminate, were they ‘obvious’?
I think it takes one to know one but in general I would not say any were obvious, but also, I am not of the culture, so clues can be different as well to me.
9 The responses in these interviews (which are not yet publicly available) are daunting, to say the least. They offer a frightening view of terror. Do you sense that these awful circumstances are typical for most gay people or confined to a few gays who are easy or obvious targets (effeminate men or guys caught in the act) and therefore approached, harassed, raped or killed.
My own take on the situation, from my research, is that gay people (who are not visible gay) in Iraq are traumatized and fear for their lives and the last thing they have on their minds is to organize and run the risk of possible exposure. (Nearly all of the pro-gay activism on behalf of Iraq LGBT people is organized from ex pat Iraqis who have escaped the country and operate in ‘safe’ countries such as the UK, Canada and USA and communicate via the Internet–which is becoming less safe because of spying.)
That said, my guess is there’s a virtually invisible gay and lesbian population–with different social/financial status levels–in the major cities (and secretly in other places) who guard each others’ identities very carefully and socialize with great discretion. Many are probably married with kids to cover their truth and put on a ‘normal’ mask. This may suffice for them as there is currently no future for anything else such as prolonged intimacy or cohabitation to develop.
Based on your visit, are you aware of an underground gay community in Iraq that is invisible to non-gays in which there is a level of trust and camaraderie and communication—even an informal association?
Answer: There is clearly an underground community in Iraq in the north and in the south, and in Baghdad. It did surprise me the amount of men showing their pictures on various websites. Outness is often a function of social status, connection to the West, and other conditions. Still, it is a huge risk.
It is however very hard to tease out aspects of risk in a place like Baghdad. People can be killed at any time for any reason….I think I gave you the example of speaking English on a cell phone as one. If one appears to be too wealthy, too fashionable, one can be a target. Things like long hair or stylish clothes, which can be gay identifiers can make one a target, but also indicate someone has wealth or is too Western, making that person a target. Being obviously feminine, in manner of hands and voice, can clearly, according to a few men I spoke with in both Baghdad and in Kurdistan, mark one for being harassed in the north, and possibly killed in the South. Clearly people with money and means – gay or straight – have also tried to leave Baghdad, often for other countries or in the north, Kurdistan.
Officially, the Iraqi gay movement is in exile, but there is a network. Also, in Kurdistan, men meet in parks and socialize–it is very homosocial–but crossing a line can make someone a target for arrest as was the case with one man I met who later was sexually tortured in a hospital. You do find married gay men, but I would not want to indicate how prevalent it is or whether that is a “hiding” mechanism. Interviews are difficult in Iraq, and can only give indications of the full reality of what is happening because there is so much danger for many reasons.
Thus while not everything is conclusive after a visit of only one month, it is clear that in Baghdad, the US occupation has created a terrible situation for gays by allowing the rise of Islamic militarism, but in the north, the cultural taboos which had long existed remain so, but are not deadly in the same way. The irony is that Baghdad, as a capital city, was once more liberal on these issues, but clearly is not anymore.
For gays in Iraq, a life of constant fear
Since the U.S.-led invasion, homosexuals have been increasingly targeted by militias and police, human rights groups say.
by Molly Hennessy-Fiske,Times Staff Writer
Samir Shaba sits in a restaurant, nervously describing gay life in Iraq. He speaks in a low voice, occasionally glancing over his shoulder. The heavyset, clean-shaven Christian says that before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, he frequented the city’s gay blogs, online chat rooms and dance clubs, where he wore flashy tight clothes, his hair long and loose to his shoulders. After the invasion, he and other gays and lesbians were driven underground by sectarian violence and religious extremists. Shaba, 25, packed his flashy clothes away, started wearing baseball caps and baggy T-shirts and stopped visiting clubs and chat rooms. But he couldn’t bear to cut his hair. “I cannot change everything immediately,” he said, fingering his black ponytail. “I suffered because I didn’t cut it.”
Recently, Shaba said, police commandos spotted his hair as he was riding in a taxi through a checkpoint in central Baghdad. Suspecting that he was gay, the four commandos dragged him out of the taxi by his hair, and forced him into an armored car. They demanded his cell phone, cash and sex. When he refused, they beat him with a baton and gang-raped him. He rubbed the back of his shirt, feeling for the scars. “They got what they wanted because I thought otherwise I would lose my life,” Shaba said, and he began to weep. “They threatened me that if I told anyone, they would kill me.”
Human rights groups say that Iraqi gays are increasingly targeted by militias and police. The United Nations and State Department have issued reports documenting some of the more recent killings. A U.N. report in January cited attacks on gays by militants, as well as the existence of “religious courts, supervised by clerics, where homosexuals allegedly would be ‘tried,’ ‘sentenced’ to death and then executed.” Iraqi leaders dismiss those allegations, and Middle East experts say it’s difficult to tell whether the attacks are state-sanctioned.
” Nobody’s paying attention to this issue,” said Ali Dabbagh, spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. “It is not the custom of the people of Iraq. Not only Iraq, but the whole region.”
In October 2005, Iraq’s leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, on his website forbidding homosexuality and declaring that gays and lesbians should be “punished, in fact, killed.” “The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way,” the decree said. The fatwa against gay men was removed from Sistani’s website last year, but it was not revoked, said Ali Hili, an Iraqi gay-rights activist living in London who petitioned Sistani’s office to remove it.
Hili compiles details of the killings of homosexuals, including photographs of victims, and posts them online. Included in his list of victims are:
• Anwar, 34, a taxi driver who ran a safe house for gays in the southern city of Najaf. Hili said Anwar was shot execution-style after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in March.
• Nouri, 29, a tailor in the southern city of Karbala who had received death threats for being gay and was beheaded in February, Hili said.
• Hazim, 21, of Baghdad also received threats, Hili said, and after police seized him at home in February, his body was found with several gunshots to the head.
Shaba said his cousin Alan, 26, who also was gay, was shot in the head one day when he went to answer the door while the two were having lunch. Although Alan might have been targeted because he was working as an interpreter with U.S. forces in the Green Zone, Shaba said he thought his cousin was killed because he was openly gay. “There are other translators in our neighborhood, and nobody killed them,” he said.
Difficult to discern
Given the pervasiveness of sectarian violence in Iraq, it’s hard to tell whether such men are targeted for being gay, said filmmaker Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim based in New York. Sharma just finished filming a documentary called “A Jihad for Love,” set in Iraq and a dozen other Middle Eastern countries. It is to be released this fall. Sharma’s film concentrates on the prosecution of 52 gay men arrested in 2001 aboard a floating nightclub on the Nile; they became known as the “Cairo 52.” No similar incident has been documented in Iraq, Sharma said. “It’s very difficult to tell whether there is a pogrom of any sort to kill gay men,” he said, but the environment for gays in Iraq has clearly soured.
In the 1980s, Baghdad and Cairo were gay social centers, Sharma said. Many Iraqi gays settled into straight marriages and had families, but many continued to have homosexual relationships on the side. Although President Saddam Hussein shut down many of Baghdad’s gay bars in the 1990s and passed a law against sodomy in 2001, Iraqi gays and lesbians still socialized. After the 2003 invasion, a man who gave his name as Ahmed still cruised Rubaie Street, a once popular gay thoroughfare in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Zayuna, but he was not openly gay, he said.
A year and a half ago, one of the men he’d met there showed up at his apartment wearing an Iraqi army uniform. He threatened to tell fellow soldiers that Ahmed was gay unless he paid a bribe of 160,000 dinars, about $135. That was a probable death sentence, he said. Ahmed paid, fled the country for Amman, Jordan, and considers himself among the lucky ones. A 31-year-old gay pharmacist in the mostly Sunni west Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriya, said several of his friends were killed for being gay. He is often followed and stopped at checkpoints, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear that he might be attacked. He dreams of getting a visa to Sweden, Germany or the Netherlands, which have accepted the bulk of Iraqi refugees, and then applying for asylum because of political persecution.
The United States has recognized asylum claims by gays and lesbians since 1994, but the applications of only about 14% of lesbians and 16% of gay men have been approved, according to the San Francisco-based Asylum Documentation Program of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In Iraq, the wait for visas is long. Fake travel documents cost at least $15,000 on the black market, out of the pharmacist’s price range.
“I’m just looking for salvation,” he said. “Maybe next month you will call and my family will say, ‘Oh, he is killed.’ ”
‘A cultural issue’
A U.N. spokesman said it was difficult to determine how many gays have been targeted and whether the Iraqi government is trying to help them. “They have said they are trying to improve human rights for all Iraqis, but they are not even willing to say there are gays in Iraq. This is a cultural issue,” U.N. spokesman Said Arikat said. Wijdan Mikaeil, Iraq’s minister of human rights, said her office had not received reports of attacks on gays. She said that gays may be afraid to come forward but that the United Nations is over-emphasizing the problem. “The Iraqi people have been attacked all across Iraq — not because they are gay, but because of the sectarian issue,” she said.
The State Department has urged Iraq to prevent attacks on gays, spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said, but the insurgency and sectarian violence have made it difficult for the government to protect human rights. Gabor Rona, international legal director at New York-based Human Rights First, said the chaos shouldn’t stop the U.S. government from pressuring Iraqi authorities to hold security forces accountable for abusing gays. “We may not have any ability to do anything about suicide bombings and insurgent attacks, but we may have the ability to influence the Iraqi government if they have a hand in this,” Rona said.
Some U.S. legislators are demanding that the State Department act. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), both openly gay lawmakers, sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in June demanding that she investigate attacks on Iraqi gays and pressure Maliki to respond. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has sponsored legislation that would prioritize gay Iraqi refugees in an expanded Iraqi refugee program. Ahmed, now living in Amman, said U.S. forces in Iraq should investigate reports of assaults on gays and ensure that those responsible are punished.
“At least if they catch one of them, they may be afraid to do it again.”